Katja Hoyer’s new history of the German Empire is a fantastic primer on an understudied political entity, as well as a cracking good read.
The imperial dreams of more than half of Europe were crushed by the carnage of the First World War, a conflict which saw the destruction of several long-lasting imperial states. The Tsardom of Russia had survived, in one form or another, since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century; the Habsburg monarchy, represented in 1914 by Austria-Hungary, was around in the 13th century; and the Ottoman Empire, still hanging on by a thread at the turn of the 20th century, famously conquered its capital in 1453. None of these long-lived historic empires survived the Great War. Still, perhaps the most interesting imperial loss seen in the aftermath of that conflict was that of the most recent imperial creation – the German Empire. For too many years, the Second Reich (the First being the Holy Roman Empire) has been seen primarily through the lens of its eventual successor: the Nazi regime which promised an eternal Third Reich. This presentation is reductive, unfairly tars Imperial Germany with the stain of Nazi crimes, and flattens a truly fascinating and multi-dimensional polity into a cardboard cutout version of the real thing. Katja Hoyer’s new book, Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, 1871-1918, serves as a long-overdue corrective to that dominant narrative and fleshes out Imperial Germany in a readable yet detailed fashion.
Some might expect a straightforward history of the German Empire to start with the founding of the polity at the Palace of Versailles in 1871, but there is much more to be learned if one takes a broader view. Accordingly, Hoyer chooses to start her narrative in 1815, tracing the seeds of German nationalism and political union to the epic defeat of Napoleon I, one in which the German-speaking peoples played a significant role. Her discussion of the early strains of German national feeling, through the revolutions of 1848 and the various German economic confederations, does an excellent job of foreshadowing the diverging paths those sentiments would take in the following decades. Blood and Iron takes its title from the famous speech of modern Germany’s ‘founding father’, Otto von Bismarck, and the great man justifiably serves as the focus for much of the middle of the book. I have studied and written about the Iron Chancellor quite a bit myself and have read more biographies of the man than I care to count; I have rarely seen a more concise – yet accurate and detailed – history of the man and his times than the one found in Blood and Iron. Bismarck is an endlessly fascinating character and one could only grasp the whole of his career through reading multiple works, but this book does an amazing job of presenting the highlights (and lowlights) in an interesting and engaging manner. The lay reader will find a treasure trove of informational nuggets in Blood and Iron that will spark new interests and the desire to learn more. I cannot think of a better compliment to give a book that is meant for mass consumption.
Hoyer also does a thorough job of discussing the second major figure in Imperial German history: Kaiser Wilhelm II. Portraits of the Kaiser can either paint him as the main driver behind militaristic imperial policy or as a naive buffoon who was led around on a leash by powerful industrial and military interests; Hoyer skillfully avoids these common stereotypes in a quest to humanize the Kaiser and grant his historical treatment more nuance. Her treatment of World War I is also very good, especially given the constraints on detail for a mass-market popular history. Hoyer focuses less on the military aspects of the war and more on the social and cultural impacts it had on Germany while it happened; this dovetails with the rest of the book and echoes the focus seen in other chapters. If the reader is interested in learning more about the war itself, there are myriad books on the topic that deal more in specifics, including Roger Chickering’s Imperial Germany and the Great War. But Hoyer’s book is not meant to be a detailed and granular war history – it is meant as a survey of a truly dynamic political unit, and in that she succeeds quite well. The book is multi-dimensional and touches on almost all major aspects of the history: social, economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural. The only quibble I had with the book was its relative lack of focus on German imperialism, foreign affairs, and great power conflict; Hoyer does touch on these topics, but I wish there was a bit more discussion of them to further contextualize the war which ended the Empire. (If you’re looking for the same thing, I’m writing a thesis involving it, hopefully to be finished in May.)
If you want a broad tour of the German Empire and its impact on European history, modern German society, and world politics and culture, Blood and Iron is a fabulous read. Katja Hoyer is a very good writer and her prose is always engaging and readable. One of the things about the book that really endeared it to me was its use of anecdotes and stories to flesh out the ideas presented in the text; these brief human moments are relatable, often humorous, and bring the past to life in a way that is not only appealing to those who study history for a living, but also to those who wish to learn for pleasure. The period described in the book is often overlooked by historians and the public alike in favor of ‘sexier’ eras; hopefully Ms. Hoyer’s excellent work serves as a counterbalance to that trend.